In 2007, in response to an application made to the Court of Appeal (CA) by the late Mr Peter Jayasekera, in the public interest, alleging that Sri Lanka Telecom’s (SLT) telephone charges were too high, the CA directed that the charges levied by SLT should be brought down by 25 per cent across the board. An appeal was then made by SLT to the Supreme Court (SC) against this order. Thereupon, the SC considered the facts and ordered that the charges should be reduced by 20-25 per cent. The SLT appealed against this order as well. As is customary in this type of case, the Attorney General (AG) was directed to look into the matter.
The AG has no telecommunications specialists in-house and, consequently, sought the advice of the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRC) because of its presumed expertise and impartiality. TRC gave its advice by its letter dated 9 July 2007. However, this letter, according to representations received by CIMOGG, contained incorrect information and computations. One of the errors that the TRC is alleged to have made in its computations was that it did not take into account the fact that, owing to the expansion of the SLT system, operating costs per subscriber had been dropping substantially, year after year, for a period of several years, and that this trend was expected to continue. Had this lowering of operational costs been taken into account, the charges computed by the TRC would necessarily have been lower and SC may well have upheld the 20-25 per cent reduction that it originally ordered. Instead, based on the information furnished by the TRC, the SC lowered the originally prescribed reduction to a little over 9 per cent.
Even this reduction to 9 per cent does not seem to have satisfied SLT. What SLT appears to have done, after the SC gave its new order, was to juggle around with the various components which go into the make-up of telephone charges to give the impression that a 9 per cent reduction was being given to all subscribers. One of the juggling feats that SLT allegedly did was to reduce the time-based charge by a small percentage to give the impression of having lowered the tariff but surreptitiously introduced a new charge, where merely ringing another number and getting connected to it, would result in a charge of Rs1.50 being levied, even if the person at the other end does not pick up the telephone. The Citizens’ Movement for Good Governance (CIMOGG) understands that, when typical telephone communications by different classes of users are analyzed statistically for their duration, frequency, peak/off-peak usage etc by independent experts, using actual records, it is found that the present monthly charges generally end up even higher than those prevailing before the 2007 SC Order. We are told that rural and urban residential users are the most adversely affected.
Concerned by this, a small group of telecommunications-literate engineers recently filed an FR Application in the SC to ask it to order the TRC to comply strictly with the 2007 SC Order. However, the SC appears to have construed the Application to have been a request to revise the 2007 SC Order, which was not what the Petitioners had sought. It may be that the technical complexities of the subject may have blurred the picture. Leave to proceed was refused. Meanwhile, SLT has come up with a set of new packages, called “V-Talk”, which members of the public suspect contain further disguised increases of its telephone charges, even over and above the rates prevailing before the SC Order to reduce charges by 9 per cent.
As no one in CIMOGG (which includes persons with a fairly good mathematical background) was able to work out how to minimize his telephone bills within the V-talk scenario, we wrote to the Director General of the TRC (DG/TRC), on 28 September 2009, under registered cover, as follows:
“On inquiries received from members of the public, the Executive Committee of CIMOGG looked into whether the new V-Talk packages offered by SLT would give residential subscribers some relief from the ever-increasing size of telephone bills. We recall that, although the tariffs announced in November 2007 were supposed to reduce bills by 9% on average, bills generally went up rather than down, according to the complaints addressed to the press by several subscribers since then. As we do not wish to see subscribers being misled once again, we are writing to you now regarding SLTs new V-Talk packages.
“Even though SLT claims that both residential and business subscribers would benefit significantly by choosing an appropriate V-Talk package, we are perplexed, in the light of our own amateur (but not totally uninformed) computations, as to how this benefit is going to be achieved. In the circumstances, in the interests of telephone users, we request that you, as the official regulator of the telecommunications sector and necessarily unbiased guide, to give us your own original, authoritative computations and your present recommendations on the most suitable V-Talk packages for the various combinations of peak and off-peak usages, for not less than ten typical groups of subscribers with differing usage patterns. With this guidance, the public would be able to determine whether these packages are, in fact, genuinely better and, if so, to choose the most appropriate one for their respective patterns of usage. We shall, in particular, be obliged if you would let us have the assured minimum reduction to be expected relative to the November 2007 tariffs; and also its degree of reliability.
“Your very early response would be greatly appreciated.”
As there was neither acknowledgement nor response from the DG/TRC, we sent a reminder on 13 October 2009, together with a copy of the original letter, once again under registered cover, but the DG/TRC remains unresponsive to date. We are at a loss as to whether to attribute this reticence to arrogance, incompetence or callous indifference to the public’s concerns.
We take the opportunity to remind the DG/TRC that the TRC was created to safeguard the public interest in telecommunications-related matters and, inter alia, to check that the public are offered packages, the monthly costs of which can be worked out without difficulty by the average telephone user in the light of his own intended pattern of telephone use. One of the key functions of a regulatory authority in a liberalised market is to ensure transparency of information. Efficient regulatory authorities in other countries publish comprehensive performance indicators with authentic data which help to evaluate the cost-effectiveness of the services, ease of access and market competitiveness, thus enabling consumers to make informed choices. The regulator is obliged to see that service providers furnish clear, unambiguous and accurate information to the consumer.
There is provision in the TRC Act (Section 12) for a public hearing to be held on matters relating to its area of responsibilities and we have no doubt that there would be many subscribers who would wish to submit their 2006-2009 monthly bills to enable a factual assessment to be arrived at regarding the question of whether SLT’s charges have been reduced in line with the 2007 SC Order and whether or not V-talk is a further improvement in favour of the public. In the face of the silence of the DG/TRC and its possible implications, we call upon the full Telecommunications Regulatory Commission to arrange urgently to hold a public inquiry headed by an independent person or persons of unimpeached reputation, with the necessary telecommunications background, to ascertain the validity or otherwise of the positions taken up by the TRC and its critics.